Thursday, December 31, 2009


The last decade of the 19th century was not a good time for American business as the country attempted to weather the effects of an economic depression. Among the industries to feel this downturn were the railroads, the heart and soul of the nation’s transportation network. It was at this time that the Missouri Kansas and Texas Railroad, the - M.K.T. line - hired a public relations guru named William G. (Willie) Crush as an assistant to the vice president. Crush, who had been associated with the P.T. Barnum enterprise, was given the task of developing programs to promote a greater public appreciation for the sprawling rail line whose tracks connected Texas with key cities such as Kansas City and St. Louis, and through those hubs with the rest of the country. Known affectionately as the “KATY” line, the company was wide open to suggestions, and it was hoped that Crush was just the man to have a few.
What Crush knew was that train wrecks were like ”mothers’ milk” to headline-hungry newspapers and the public alike. It seemed to him that a well-planned and heavily-promoted train wreck would be just the ticket to focus national attention on the KATY, and management of the line soon agreed. It remained only to select a location, consult the engineering and technical experts, and set the publicity ball rolling. The most logical spot for the event was a long straight
level stretch of track with hills at both ends just to the north of Waco, Texas. Since no town existed at that location, one would have to be built, so two water wells were drilled, a temporary depot was erected, viewing stands built, and all the accoutrements to serve an expected gathering of 25,000 people installed. Not a man to miss an opportunity for a little self-promotion, Willie named the new town – what else, “Crush”. And so the event became advertised and promoted everywhere as the “Great Train Wreck at Crush”.
The technical aspects of the plan involved not insignificant considerations. Crucial was the question of whether or not the impact of two trains traveling at great speed might cause the boilers to explode. Supplying the power to drive a steam locomotive was a boiler made of thick heavy metal capable of withstanding pressures resulting from steam expanding to a volume 1675 times that of water. Already, the world had witnessed the consequences of such a disaster, as with the sinking of the steam ship “Sultana” on the Mississippi, which took the lives of 1700 returning Union Army soldiers in 1865. But not to worry: all but one of the railroad engineers consulted assured Willie that such would not take place.
Then there was the question of speed, point of impact, and the integrity of the hitches connecting each locomotive to the string of six cargo cars making up the train. The two aging Baldwin engines selected – No. 1001, and No. 999 – with their old-style diamond-shaped stacks, would be painted alternately, green with red trim, and red with green trim, and would begin their speed run from two directly-facing hilltops separated by four miles of track. The sides of the box cars were painted with large advertising signs, including one for the P.T. Barnum Circus who would be supplying a huge tent to house food and other services for the event.
As part of the advertising campaign, the two colorful trains puffed their way to many parts of Texas during the preceding weeks, and tickets for round-trip transportation for the event were sold for $2.00. (The big show itself would be free.) The “instant” town of Crush soon took on the appearance of an amusement park, with rides, concessions, medicine shows and entertainment galore. Just to make sure nothing would get out of hand 300 police officers were brought in to control crowds expected to include many who would indulge in more than lemonade, and barriers were erected to make certain that no one other than photographers and officials could get closer than 200 yards.
On the morning of Tuesday, September 15, 1896, thirty passenger trains fanned out across the state to haul enthusiastic minions to a city which – for one day – would be the second largest in all of Texas. The crowd is estimated to have numbered over 40,000.
At 5:00 PM, the two trains touched cow catchers at milepost 881, the appointed place of impact, then slowly backed their way to the tops of the opposing hills as the thousands of viewers held their collective breath. At 5:10 William George Crush lifted his hat and quickly brought it down as the crowd let out a roar. The two locomotives began the journey belching black smoke, their throttles tied wide open. After four turns of the drive wheels, the two crews leaped from the accelerating cabs as planned. Fireworks placed on the rails and the blast of whistles tied open accompanied the rumble of the trains as they swept down the hills, the crowd raised on tip toes and straining for the best possible view of what was about to happen.
At a combined speed of 90 miles per hour the two trains crashed together with what might at first have seemed a rather disappointing lack of drama, the remains seeming to collapse downward onto the tracks. A few seconds ticked by, then the two boilers exploded simultaneously, sending timbers and debris into the sky and showering the entire area with thousands of shards of metal shrapnel. Three observers were killed outright, a newsman blinded in one eye, and others injured.
In the aftermath, “Willie” Crush was fired, and the families of the victims quietly compensated. As MKT railroad derricks moved in to clean up the debris, they found there was almost nothing to retrieve. Souvenir hunters were in such a hurry to claim their piece of history, some ended up with burned fingers.
Agent Crush was quietly hired back within two days, Scott Joplin wrote a song about the incident, MKT noticed an increase in passenger travel, and the country moved on. Today, all that remains of the famous “Crash at Crush” is a small, hard-to-notice marker beside a freeway interchange 14 miles north of Waco, Texas. That is, if you don’t count thousands of strange pieces of ragged metal scattered on mantels and gathering dust in attics and basements across the state of Texas.

A time-worn news photograph captures a staged face-off between the two KATY trains just prior to the “Great Train Wreck at Crush”in September, 1896.

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